Georgetown reparations plan for slaves sold by university draws criticism from students

Georgetown University is seen in Washington March 19, 2019. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

On Oct. 29, John J. DeGioia, president of Georgetown University, released a university-wide letter announcing that Georgetown would commit to raising around $400,000 a year to create a fund for reparations to the descendants of 272 slaves sold by the college in the pre-Civil War era. In a recent letter, Dr. DeGioia asked, “How do we address now, in this moment, the enduring and persistent legacies of slavery?” Georgetown’s answer is markedly different from proposals supported by Students for GU272, a student group that emerged to support the contemporary descendants of Georgetown’s 272 slaves.

The students quickly released a response to the university’s reparations proposal, criticizing the $400,000 annual commitment, an amount far less than the $1 billion goal set by the descendants themselves, because the university planned to raise the money through donations. Students say that approach would not facilitate interaction between students and descendants and “transforms the fund intended to repay a debt...into a philanthropy effort.” 

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In April, two-thirds of Georgetown students voted to increase tuition per student by $27.20 to create a fund for reparations in a university-wide referendum. According to a university spokesperson, Meghan Dubyak, who spoke with America this past June, Georgetown did not plan to vote “up or down” on the reparations fund, vowing instead to “engage thoughtfully...the issues presented by the student referendum.” 

On Oct. 30, students for GU272 said in an open letter posted to the group’s Facebook page that Georgetown’s Board of Directors “has chosen to ignore student demands for implementation of the referendum.”

On Oct. 30, students for GU272 said in an open letter posted to the group’s Facebook page that Georgetown’s Board of Directors “has chosen to ignore student demands for implementation of the referendum.”

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Cheryllyn Branche, president of the GU272 Descendants Association, released a statement that did not address the reparation plan detailed by the university but praised Georgetown’s student activists. “We see this [referendum] as a valuable part of a much greater response to atonement and restitution for this nation’s history of slavery,” she wrote. 

Controversy erupted at Georgetown in April 2016 following the publication of a New York Times article that detailed how in 1838, to address financial deficits faced by the college, the Maryland Province Jesuits sold 272 slaves. At a remembrance liturgy in April 2017, Dr. DeGioia and Timothy P. Kesicki, S.J., the president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, offered their apologies.

“We pray with you today because we have greatly sinned and because we are profoundly sorry,” said Father Kesicki. Dr. DeGioia addressed the inherent immorality of slavery: “Slavery remains the original evil of our Republic.... We lay this truth bare—in sorrowful apology and communal reckoning,” he said.

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Dr. DeGioia’s office did not respond to requests for comment, but the Rev. Raymond B. Kemp, the special assistant to the president at Georgetown, said that raising $1 billion is “a serious problem” for Dr. DeGioia. “I think the other side of the coin is we’re still developing the full story of the descendants,” he told America, noting that a legacy of slavery pertains not only to Georgetown but to the Society of Jesus. Father Kemp described how Georgetown, in the 19th century, existed as “a piece of the Jesuit plantation.” He said that slaveholding among Catholics was widespread in Maryland. 

Cheryllyn Branche, president of the GU272 Descendants Association, released a statement that did not address the reparation plan detailed by the university but praised Georgetown’s student activists.

Once the pastor of the first black parish in Washington, D.C., Father Kemp is also concerned with the “hundreds of descendants” of slaves owned by Jesuits beyond those persons sold in 1838 by the university. “This is larger than Georgetown,” he said. “It rests with the Society of Jesus, and I say that humbly as a diocesan priest. It also rests with the Archdiocese of Baltimore and of Washington.” 

In Father Kemp’s view, the consequences of slavery still persist, specifically in Washington, D.C. “Having lived with wonderfully incredible African-American Catholics, I can’t look at the city without seeing the lasting impacts of segregation, of racism, of exploitation.”

According to Father Kemp, Dr. DeGioia hopes to organize an institute focused on studying structures of racism. Father Kemp is supportive of the students engaging with Georgetown’s past. He said that he is “inspired, astounded [and] wonderfully appreciative” of students taking initiative on the issue. “They’re owning their history,” he said. 

Commenting on the student’s reaction to the university’s reparations plan on Nov. 1, Father Kemp wrote to America: “I think it’s great to have the students engage with the descendants and the University. Let’s get it rolling.” 

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Michael Barberi
1 month ago

The issue of slave reparations is getting a bit ridiculous. On a larger scale, should the U.S. Government pay reparations for the descendants of all slaves since we know that many of our early Presidents ownedand sold slaves. Also, the Federal Government encouraged slave ownership for hundreds of years. It did not free slaves until 1863 and it was not until 1964 that the law was passed that made it illegal to discriminate against someone based on race. What about the descendants of native Americans whose land was taken by force by the Federal Government, discriminated against, and moved into terretories idolated from the rest of the population? What do we do about the descendants of the thousands of Japanese Americans that were isolated and imprisoned in the U.S. during WW II?
It is one thing to apologize for a country's past sins, and move forward with laws that help to eliminate such sins. it is another to try to pay economic reparations to the descendants of slaves that were discriminated against a hundred years ago. This seems like the issue of the moment. If you don't agree with it, I am sure someone will call you racist.

Charles Morgan
1 month ago

Agreed! The "reparations" owed "victims" are incalculable. No amount will ever be enough. Even if one group of "victims" agrees that some amount of money essentially eliminates their claims, the next generation will deny that and claim more compensation. It's baloney. The university should demand that all "victims" of Georgetown's ownership of slaves prove that they are suffering today from their poor treatment historically.

karen oconnell
1 month ago

I agree with you wholeheartedly. where do we start.... and stop ... making reparation????? every group that has come to America has suffered- some much more than others. we are surrounded by present and past evil. we cannot redo or 'pay off' the past. it is here; it is done.. what we can do is work hard to insure that these evils do not re-occur. we are in the middle of a serious immigration crisis. these human beings, mainly of color, are people who did not come here of their own free will. they came here to save their lives and the lives of their children. they immigrate in large part because of the USA financial and monetary support given to their murderous governments. stop finicking about civil war statues etc. it happened ...get over it. civil war statues etc offer us an opportunity to live in humility and to face up with our past. the past and present miseries of our government / religious institutions have enchained us. don't take them down......... face reality and give an explanation .

Dionys Murphy
1 month ago

"I agree with you wholeheartedly. where do we start.... and stop ... making reparation?" -- First, it might be good to at least start. So far no one has. "Get over it" is a convenient cry for white people like yourself who didn't suffer generational slavery and generational trauma that reaches to today and oppression such as Blacks continue to suffer today and easily into the mid 20th century with things like 'redline' districts set up by banks. It's easy to say "forget about it" when you have nothing to forget about and don't feel the effects of generational oppression and trauma.

JOHN GRONDELSKI
1 month ago

I would welcome Georgetown spending money to enable TODAY's students to afford going there. My kids certainly couldn't. The past can never be "repaired." Reparations can be symbolic, and charity is due, but it seems we have almost a Pelagian desire to "fix" evil. The only way to fix our evil is, in the end, to leave it in Christ. One would think Jesuits could figure that out.

L Hoover
1 month ago

First, the problems of black descendants of slaves run deep. I fail to see how forking money over will make things right. Perhaps Georgetown could give admission and scholarships to some descendants of those slave families, or invite them to be mentored by participants who could teach them how to handle privileges. Second, for how long do we think America will be a land of seemingly endless resources? My estimation is, not for long. Third, how about addressing current problems that harm minority families descended from slavery, for example, police and societal bias against and willingness to cause harm to minorities and keep them down, the need for gun control, provision of opportunities for forward movement, inclusivity towards the marginalized, altering policies that cause harm, increasing availability of healthcare and childcare, reducing the excessively high cost for college educations. In sum, humans have caused much harm throughout history. Our challenge is to keep moving forward. True reparations would merit billions of dollars we don't have.

I also agree with Michael Barberi's comments.

Stephen Shore
1 month ago

How about reparations for Native Americans? We forcefully took a whole continent from them. Surely that would be worth trillions.

And what about reparations for the descendants of the Union casualties that were sacrificed in the fight for freedom of the slaves? Surely the ultimate sacrifice is worth more than even being held in slavery?

This reparation idiocy needs to stop. If you feel guilty of being a white American, find a good therapist. You did nothing wrong and it is not your fault.

Bill Niermeyer
1 month ago

Right on. If reparation is good for one group why not our Native American brothers and sisters whom we treated and continue to treat very unfairly.

Dionys Murphy
1 month ago

"This reparation idiocy needs to stop. If you feel guilty of being a white American, find a good therapist. You did nothing wrong and it is not your fault." - And if you continue to do nothing, please also find a therapist because you are living in the denial of what white America did and continues to do to people of color.

Terry Kane
1 month ago

This is a sad commentary on the state of some in this country. This seems to be a case of liberals trying to show how virtuous and noble they are. Slavery was awful, however, it was universal.
Georgetown wants to feel good about actions in the present to atone for actions taken by others in the distant past. How many slaves did Georgetown have in total? Were there only a total of 272 slaves, or were those unfortunate souls the slaves who were sold. If there were more than that number, what happens to their descendants - no reparations?
Should the modern day country of Israel sue the modern day country of Egypt for the slavery ancient Jews were subjected to by ancient Egyptians? Should the US sue the British Empire for making colonists pay unfair taxes until the American Revolution? Should the descendants of Al Capone's victims get reparations from descendants of the Capone family of today? Gotti, John Dillinger, Clyde Barrow, etc. all comitted crimes and killed or had others kill - should their descendants pay today for relatives' actions in the past? This could go on forever; everyone's country or family or school or industry or institution has a slight or a sin in its past.
This is not a realistic or meaningful course of behavior. Things are as they are now. We cannot change the past, so we should accept the present and try to make improvements to today's situations. The sins of the father do not pass to the son, and the sins of the predecessor do not pass to future generations.

Robert Klahn
4 weeks 1 day ago

"The sins of the father do not pass to the son, and the sins of the predecessor do not pass to future generations."

The debts of the corporation do pass to the new stockholders.

Terry Kane
3 weeks 6 days ago

How do you come to that conculsion?

John Walton
1 month ago

Did DeGioia and Kiesicki SJ ask for forgiveness? What right do they to ask? What personal sin did they commit. This is the entire problem with the jesuitical construct of "communal sin", that the sins of the father should be visited upon their sons. Let the dead bury their dead.

Christopher Lochner
1 month ago

Poor Georgetown Institution! What began as a very public mea culpa with a rending of garments has morphed into survivors wanting at least a billion $ to soothe their suffering (and buying into luxury one may be assured.) What a mashup of a disasterous public relations failure intersecting with good old fashioned greed. Difficult to like any of the players here. Are the Georgetown Jesuits THAT naive? Seriously!

Alan Johnstone
1 month ago

I cannot believe this, it is barking mad!
Someone in DC needs to test the drinking water supplying the campus and surrounds, maybe there are magic mushrooms growing in the reservoirs or terrorists are putting drugs in the water at the pump-house.

Someone remind the people involved, the faith that inspired the Jesuit foundation that they have left teaches that atonement was done on the Cross and cannot be bought.
I presume the slaves are all dead, so they cannot be compensated and probably all understand far more than we do how irrelevant and unnecessary this idiocy is really.

This calls to mind one of my favourite GK Chesterton quotes: "The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason." Theology instead of faith will do that to you.

Robert Klahn
4 weeks 1 day ago

Those who witness their descendants being held down in this country today realize this is not irrelevant and unnecessary.

E.Patrick Mosman
1 month ago

The idea of paying reparations to someone who was never a slave by those who never owned a slave is ludicrous. How would eligibility be determined? Would reparations be limited to only those that can prove conclusively that the are direct descendants of two slave families or would or would would anyone with even a trace evidence of African heritage in a DNA test be eligible? Since none of today's potentially eligible recipients were slaves perhaps reparations should be a one-way flight ticket to their ancestors home country where any financial settlement would be assessed on the tribe that sold their ancestors to the slave traders.

Dionys Murphy
1 month ago

"The idea of paying reparations to someone who was never a slave by those who never owned a slave is ludicrous." However, the idea of paying reparations to a descendant of slaves who have suffered economically and suffer ongoing generational trauma by those who continue to dwell in privilege and who continue to benefit from a country built on the backs of Black slaves makes perfect sense.

E.Patrick Mosman
1 month ago

The USA taxpayers have spent billions of dollars on social welfare programs to help the underprivileged, many the descendants of slaves over the past 50+ years, including public housing, food stamps, and other programs State and local too numerous to list. Are you proposing to give Black judges, Black mayors and police commissioners of major cities,Black Millionaire athletes, movie stars, entertainers, Black CEOs of companies a government taxpayer hand out because they were oppressed?

Robert Klahn
4 weeks 1 day ago

At least one person understands.

Well said.

arthur mccaffrey
1 month ago

3 generations ago my Irish ancestors were forced to leave their homeland because the English would not grant them the assistance they needed to survive the potato famine. Does that mean that I have a reparations claim against the Engish? Which English?--the politicians of 1850? the ordinary Englishman in the street? the Queen? Who?
You can pursue this to its absurd conclusion about any "oppressed" people. Has anyone started a reparations fund for the descendants of the Armenian massacre.? Is one group more "deserving" than another? Will cash even wash away the stain of the past? And since I was not born until 1956, why should I be held responsible for something that happened in 1856?

--

Jim Smith
4 weeks 1 day ago

While the blight did strike and take down most of Ireland's potatoes, the truth is that Ireland was exporting more than enough food to feed everyone at the same time as the famine was happening. ... In other words, a million Irish starved for no reason other than maintaining profit from trade.

I agree with the thrust of your opinion.
Fact is, inherited debt has been explored, implemented and seen to produce terrible results; think English workhouses and debtors prison.
Slightly silly, but how can a massacred person have descendants?

Robert Klahn
4 weeks 1 day ago

All this commentary, and almost all are focused on doing nothing to remedy a problem that goes back hundreds of years, and was legal in the Jim Crow sense until a bit over 50 years ago, and is still the reality of today.

Decades back a black leader, I believe it was Jesse Jackson, realizing nothing would be done straight up to make amends, came up with a simple idea, that would do the job, and start on a path that could remedy the damage done in the past, and would if the people on top signed on.

*********FIX THE SCHOOLS!*************

Won't even do that much, will you?

Robert Klahn
4 weeks 1 day ago

"In Father Kemp’s view, the consequences of slavery still persist, specifically in Washington, D.C. “Having lived with wonderfully incredible African-American Catholics, I can’t look at the city without seeing the lasting impacts of segregation, of racism, of exploitation.”"

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